Community colleges set legislative priorities

  • Thursday, 24 September 2015 09:18

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Armed with a recent ranking as the top community college system in the nation, leaders of Mississippi’s 15 community colleges told the Legislative Budget Committee that for every dollar invested in community colleges by Mississippi taxpayers the payback is that dollar, plus an additional $3.86.

“If community colleges were a company, would you recommend to Warren Buffett that he buy it? The answer, of course, is yes.” said Dr. Jesse Smith, president of Jones County Junior College and chair of the 15-member Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges.

The National Strategic Planning and Analysis Research Center (nSPARC), based at Mississippi State University, analyzed data through the Mississippi LifeTracks statewide integrated data system that includes the community colleges, eight universities and other state agencies.

The nSPARC report, titled “What is the Value of Community Colleges to Mississippi Taxpayers?” showed the state reaps $4.86 in return to Mississippi taxpayers for every state dollar spent supporting community colleges. In August, Wallet Hub, a financial analyst company for small business and consumers, gave Mississippi’s community colleges the top ranking for cost, classroom experience and education/career outcomes.

The community colleges serve nearly 250,000 Mississippians, including 74,168 college students, 90,000 workforce trainees and more than 17,000 Adult Education students.

At the hearing, Sen. Terry Burton of Newton, (R-District 31), said, “You remain the single best bang for every educational dollar the state spends.”

The community colleges are asking for an $82.7 million increase in state funding for FY 2017. Of that request, $64.5 million is directed to mid-level funding (MLF), which was unanimously passed by the 2007 Legislature and brings per student support at a midpoint between per student spending for K-12 and regional public universities. The Legislature needs to increase per student funding at community colleges by $2,062 to achieve MLF.

The remainder of the request includes $8 million for Repair and Renovation for facility improvements and $10.1 million to help fund MI-BEST, Mississippi Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training.

The MI-BEST model bridges the skills gap for higher wage jobs, while equipping high school dropouts with job-ready credentials. Students in the program are concurrently enrolled in Adult Education and Career Pathway programs. MI-BEST also provides a safety net of support services to help adult learners earn employer-recognized credentials.

According to Mississippi Works, Gov. Phil Bryant’s workforce program, there are 35,000 unfilled jobs in the state. In Mississippi only 55 percent of working-age adults are employed.

“Mississippi Delta Community College is committed to improving the quality of the workforce in our district in order to retain and attract business and industry,” said MDCC President Larry Nabors. “However, this requires adequate funding for workforce training.”

Community college leaders also expressed concern about rising tuition costs. Nine of 15 colleges increased tuition in 2015. The average tuition and fees are $2,576 now, which is a 4 percent increase over 2014. Dr. Nabors stated “MDCC did not raise tuition in 2015, but we may be forced to in the future if we do not obtain additional state funding.”

In FY 2016, student tuition and fees accounted for 32 percent of revenues for the colleges, compared to 18 percent in FY 2000. With broad missions, the 15 two-year colleges say they manage lean budgets to make the path to degrees and certificates more cost-efficient, for both students and the state.

“Our community colleges are at a crossroads to maintain the quality and scope of services that earned us a first place recognition nationally. We must have sufficient resources and support from the Legislature to equip our citizens with the education and skills that provide family sustaining wages,” said Deborah J. Gilbert, interim executive director, Mississippi Community College Board.

This funding bolsters faculty resources at the two-year colleges, where 69 percent of the budget is spent on salaries. The legislative request includes a commitment to raise community college instructor salaries to a competitive level between the average university faculty salary and the K-12 public school teacher salary. Community college faculty salaries are currently $6,984 below that mid-point target. It will take about $45 million to reach the mid-point salary target. The colleges are asking for half of that amount in FY 2017.

The colleges also requested $37.5 million per year for a two-year bond bill commitment, similar to the bond commitment made to the university system. “The community colleges maintain 31.9 percent of all square footage dedicated to public higher education in the state, but only receive 23.5 percent of bond funds allocated to higher education,” said Dr. Mary Graham, president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. “Our system is more than 100 years old, and many of us are maintaining facilities that were original to our campuses,” she added.

President Nabors stated that “MDCC has many facility needs, including much needed new construction as well as renovations on existing buildings. There is a lot of deferred maintenance on our campus due to the lack of sufficient bond funds.”

While acknowledging increased state support for the past four years, Dr. Clyde Muse, president of Hinds Community College, told the committee, “It is our responsibility to let you know what our needs are.”

In 2000, state funds accounted for 55 percent of the community college E&G budget. In FY 2016, state support stands at 41 percent.

The Mississippi Association for Community and Junior Colleges funding requests are endorsed by the Mississippi Community College Board, as well as the statewide trustee, alumni and faculty organizations that represent the 15 public two-year colleges.